What do you do when the world you’re living in is turned upside down?
As a pastor, I’ve thought a lot about this over the years. The world we live in is not the world we were prepared for. The kind of ministry we tend to do is designed for a world that no longer exists. We used to be able to announce a new sermon series or start a new children’s program and people would show up. But that’s not the world we live in anymore.
We are experiencing what many scholars call discontinuous change, a kind of change for which there are no experts or answers. Discontinuous change is a kind of change in which we have to figure it out as we go.
When I think about the magnitude of change in the world, I often think about a tragic event that happened about a year after my family and I moved to San Diego.
A Terrible Day
On December 8, 2008, an F/A-18 jet crashed into a neighborhood, destroying two homes and killing four people.
San Diego is a military town and one of the largest military bases in the city is MCAS Miramar, just east across the 805 freeway from the San Diego community of University City.
On that terrible day, a pilot, First Lieutenant Dan Neubauer, was conducting exercises over the Pacific Ocean about 60 miles off the coast of San Diego. After taking off from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, Neubauer declared an emergency, reporting that an oil caution light for the right engine had come on and that he had tried and failed to clear the problem
He was first directed to land at the North Island Navy base on Coronado Island, but then was redirected to Miramar because they had longer runways and better maintenance facilities. Miramar is only about twenty miles from North Island, but Miramar was just a little bit too far for the plane to make it.
As Neubauer brought the jet around to land at Miramar, he had to fly over the community of University City. At this point, he had lost his right engine and the thrust of his left engine had slipped dangerously low. He glided over University City High School. Moments later, he crashed into the residential area between the high school and the 805 freeway—just two miles from the Miramar air base.
(In the above picture, you can see the high school in the foreground, the neighborhood, and Miramar air base in the background.)
The Pilot Screamed
Neubauer was able to eject in time, landing in a tree in a nearby canyon, but was reported to have screamed in horror when he saw his jet crash into the two homes.
One of the homes was empty, but four people were inside the other home. Don Yoon was not home that afternoon, but his wife, two daughters (fifteen months and two months old), and mother-in-law were. All four of them were killed.
This tragedy occurred only a mile or two north of the church I was pastoring at the time.
“Can Someone Tell Me What to Do?”
Here’s what I remember most about that terrible event. I remember watching the father, Don Yoon, in a news conference on TV. He was bereft. He had few words. He said he didn’t blame the pilot, that the pilot had done everything in his power to keep this from happening. And then he said this, “I don’t know what to do. Can someone tell me what to do?”
I thought to myself, “I don’t think anyone can tell him what to do. I don’t know what to tell him. How could anyone know, in such an awful tragedy, what to do.”
My heart broke for him and I prayed for him. He had experienced the worst kind of discontinuous change. His family had been ripped from him. Life would never be the same again. Sure, there were resources to help him grieve, but there were no answers.
There were no experts to say, “Do this and you’ll be fine.”
Discontinuous Change for the Church
Certainly, this is a horrific and extreme example of discontinuous change. You and I don’t feel the same kind of grief and anguish that Don Yoon felt.
But we do feel some grief as we let go of a world in which the church and Christianity were at the center of our society. We do experience some anxiety as we try to figure out how to lead our ministries in an unfamiliar world. We do struggle with feelings of just not knowing what to do.
We Need to Acknowledge Our Reality
The first step to moving forward is simply to acknowledge our reality. We are doing ministry in a world for which we were not prepared. We need to surrender to that reality. We need to embrace it.
And we need to invite God into that reality.
We can only begin to move forward into new ways of doing ministry once we’ve accepted that this is the world we live in. That we can’t go backwards, we can only go forwards.
I want you to know that you are not alone. I’m wrestling with these same challenges. Don’t give up. Church may look different in the future than it did in past, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t at work.